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Making sense of Tucson: a roundup of recent commentary

January 17, 2011 by Dr. Steve Frank


The shooting rampage in Tucson January 8 that killed six people and critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), has prompted mourning and soul-searching across the country and sparked national debate about incendiary political rhetoric, mental illness, gun control and political violence.

At a memorial service for the victims last Wednesday, President Obama called on all Americans to usher in a new era of civility in honor of the shooting victims. “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
A photo from the scene of the shooting | Source: Flickr user searchnetmedia

Over the weekend, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who ran against Obama, praised the president’s call for greater civility. “Our political discourse should be more civil than it currently is, and we all, myself included, bear some responsibility for it not being so,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

The tragedy that has riveted the nation, and the attempts to make sense of it, have transfixed the staff of Constitution Daily, as well. What follows is a critical roundup and readers’ guide to the commentary that has shaped the national debate so far.

Reaction Roundup

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings commentary divided along partisan lines, with the search for causes leading many commentators, especially voices on the left, to point to violent political rhetoric and toxic partisanship as precipitating causes.

Gary Hart writing in the Huffington Post, said that politicians and political commentators who use dangerous rhetoric “cannot avoid the consequences of their blatant efforts to inflame, anger and outrage. We all know that there are unstable and potentially dangerous people among us. To repeatedly appeal to their basest instincts is to invite and welcome their predictable violence.”Paul Krugman, echoed this sentiment in The New York Times, maintaining that “the saturation of our political discourse – and especially our airwaves – with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence.”

Conservative voices quickly took issue with the explanation that a “climate of hate” fed by incendiary political rhetoric emanating from the right led to the violence. And in the days following the shooting the dominant narrative focused on the shooter’s mental derangement and disconnection from reality, an explanation that great strength as more information about the shooter emerged.

In a Washington Post commentary, Charles Krauthammer dismissed the charge that the rhetoric used by Sarah Palin and others was inciting violence as “ridiculous.”  He noted that the use of warlike metaphors in describing politics is commonplace. “When Barack Obama said at a 2008 fundraiser in Philadelphia, ‘If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,’ he was hardly inciting violence.”Jonah Goldberg, writing for National Review Online, noted that the shooter’s “grievance with Giffords appears to be unrelated to any coherent – or even incoherent – ideological platform. Rather, it drew on the bilious stew of resentment this young man cultivated as he lost his grip on reality.”David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, said  “[T]he evidence before us suggests that Loughner was locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it…the obvious questions are these: How can we more aggressively treat mentally ill people who are becoming increasingly disruptive? How can we prevent them from getting guns? Do we need to make involuntary treatment easier for authorities to invoke?”
In the rough-and-tumble Congress of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s politicians regularly wore weapons on the House and Senate floors, and sometimes used them

These two master narratives – one emphasizing the effects of inflamed partisan rhetoric, the other the mental illness and delusions of the perpetrator – were supplemented by commentators who pointed to the history of political violence in America, the nation’s gun-culture and the availability of firearms.

Politico reporters Molly Ball and Shira Toeplitz pointed out that debate over the gun issue was muted: “That the gun issue has been so secondary, and the approach to the gun component of the incident so tentative, indicates the extent to which the issue has subsided in the past decade. A bipartisan truce is in effect on gun control issues in Washington – a truce on the National Rifle Association’s terms.”Writing for, Nathan Thornburgh, called for improvements to the background-check system for gun purchases: “Saying that unstable individuals are disqualified from buying firearms is meaningless if the national background-check system, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), has no record of their illness.” He went on to ask: “Why is Arizona (along with other states) so far behind in reporting disqualifying mental illness to the federal background check system?”Other commentators pointed to the history of political violence in America. Yale historian Joanne Freeman Joanne Freeman, noted that the nation’s gun culture penetrated the halls of Congress: “In the rough-and-tumble Congress of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s,” she wrote, “politicians regularly wore weapons on the House and Senate floors, and sometimes used them.”

With President Obama’s remarks on Wednesday and Sen. McCain’s response, future commentary will focus increasingly on the hope that something positive will arise from the tragedy.

Joe Scarborough foreshadowed this line of argument in a commentary on Politico: “We don’t know yet if politics moved the gunman to action,” he wrote, “but I do know that politics doesn’t belong anywhere near our reaction to it … I believe good people on the right and left will begin to call on their political leaders and cable news cheerleaders to start showing restraint. They will ask them to actually try to talk to political opponents with whom they disagree.”

Will the shootings be a turning point in the civic life of the nation? Writing in The New York Times on Sunday, political reporter Matt Bai, noted that “the speed and fratiousness of our modern society make it all but impossible now for any one moment to transform the national debate.”


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